by J.T. Ellison
On July 24, 2013, I read a story about a young med school student named Paul DeWolf who’d been killed in his apartment. No motive, no witnesses, no suspects. By all accounts, DeWolf was an exceptional young man. He excelled in everything from school to his military training to sports and his faith. Everything about him foretold a brilliant future, but his promising young life was cut short. I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I read everything I could find on the case. And there was a single conclusion to be drawn.
It was a perfect murder…
That became the first line of WHAT LIES BEHIND. I let my imagination run, wrote up a somewhat outlandish proposal. I hit upon a title that fit beautifully with the idea of a locked room mystery, and the futility of a life lost too soon, from Thoreau (or perhaps Emerson, no one knows):
“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”
Oddly enough, the day I decided on the title, I ran across a plaque with beautiful birds on it. Up close, I realized it was the very quote I’d used to title the book. (I snatched it up, and it resides in my office in a spot of honor.) I knew then I had something special. Sometimes, the universe tells you when you’re on the right track.
Only one problem. When I wrote the opening, I suddenly realized the story I thought I was telling wasn’t the story that wanted to be written.
It happens that way sometimes. Books can surprise you, take on lives of their own, and without warning, you’re left with a completely new story. The characters dictate the story, obviously. And several wonderful people gave money to charity to have their names appear in the book.
When I accept these kinds of commissions, I don’t just toss in a name. I want the donor to get their money’s worth. I create real characters, with real purpose to the story. Tommy Cattafi became my dead medical student. Robin Souleyret was his contact, also dead. (There’s another character name I can’t share, because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. You’ll see that one in the acknowledgements.)
And then the story decided it didn’t want to be about dead people. It wanted to have live people, who did amazing things. Every day, while I watched, it wove itself into a completely different entity. Tommy Cattafi wasn’t dead, but gravely injured. Robin Souleyret was very much alive, and a former CIA agent. She had a sister, Amanda, who was undercover FBI—and became my new victim.
Because of these character names, the story itself changed. It evolved. It became about Samantha and Robin, the push and pull of the investigation, and the power of love.
There were other issues with the story as well. At its heart, WHAT LIES BEHIND is about a bioterror attack on the U.S. using an Ebola-esque hemorrhagic virus. Yeah. Topical much?
I was more than halfway through the writing well before the African outbreak, and as the virus, and the story, continued to spread, I kept having to change the book so it didn’t look like I’d stolen the story from the headlines. Because I, apparently, am simply too prescient when it comes to writing about current events.
And then we have Sam and Xander and Fletcher. Their relationships are the backbone of these books. Vital to their longevity. And Samantha really comes into her own during this investigation. It was such a blast to watch her take over. She’s always been a smart cookie, but now, she’s smart and tough and isn’t about to sit back when she sees injustices. To put it mildly, she kicks ass.
When I finished the book, I was almost afraid to turn it in. The synopsis I’d given my editor months before was unrecognizable outside of a young man cut down in his prime. Completely different from the finished book. Happily, she loved it, and here we are.
WHAT LIES BEHIND was possibly my most challenging book to date, simply because it did not behave. It didn’t do what it was told. It’s fitting that it was the thirteenth novel I’ve written. It seems I’ve just given birth to my first teenager.
(WHAT LIES BEHIND releases in mass market paperback November 24th. It make an excellent stocking stuffer!)